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Preseason Power Rankings No. 16: San Diego Chargers

Philip Rivers AP

The 2013 Chargers earned the AFC’s final wild card berth on the final day of the regular season, and were they ever the definition of a wild card.

Of the Chargers’ seven losses a season ago, six were by one score or less. They were 5-2 against playoff clubs but a mere 4-5 against also-rans, including defeats to Oakland, Washington and Houston.

But in the end, San Diego got hot at the right time, winning four in a row to end the regular season. Then, in the postseason, the Chargers proved they belonged, upsetting the favored Bengals in Cincinnati and putting up a fight in a loss at Denver in the divisional round.

In all, it was a successful first season for Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, who oversaw a club that always seemed to give itself a chance to win. And was it ever a splendid return to top form for quarterback Philip Rivers, who again looked like one of the best in his profession.

In some ways, the Chargers might have been ahead of schedule a season ago. The question is, what growth are they capable of this time around?

Strengths.

The Chargers’ offense is formidable. Rivers was fun to watch in 2013, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and ranking near the top of the NFL in passing yards gained per attempt (8.2). He was sacked 19 fewer times in 2013 than in the previous campaign (30 vs. 49), which speaks well of McCoy’s scheme and the work of the offensive line, which stepped up its play.

No team was better on third downs than the Chargers, and no quarterback may have been better than Rivers in such situations. Per STATS LLC, Rivers converted first downs on a league-high 49.4 percent of his passing attempts (77-of-156).

Rivers has multiple capable targets. Second-year wide receiver Keenan Allen starred as a rookie, hauling in 71 passes for 1,046 yards and eight touchdowns. Tight end Antonio Gates (77 catches, 872 yards, four TDs) is a key security blanket for Rivers, as is tailback Danny Woodhead (76 catches, 605 yards, six TDs). Wide receivers Malcom Floyd, Vincent Brown and Eddie Royal and tight end Ladarius Green will also get their shots to contribute, too.

The Chargers’ running game is no slouch, either. Lead back Ryan Mathews racked up 1,255 yards a season ago in a career-best campaign. Ex-Colt Donald Brown gives San Diego another starter-caliber rusher behind Mathews. In addition to his pass catching, Woodhead can chip in a few carries per game.

Finally, the Chargers’ defense appears stronger than a season ago. Free safety Eric Weedle is a standout, while ex-Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers could be just what the secondary needs. Defensive end Corey Liguet (12.5 combined sacks in the last two seasons), inside linebacker Donald Butler and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram are nice defensive foundation pieces for now and the future.

Weaknesses.

The Chargers allowed more yards per rush and per pass than any other AFC a team a season ago. Even if San Diego’s defense is better — and it should be, with Flowers arriving and Ingram and Dwight Freeney returning from injury-shortened campaigns — this isn’t a shutdown group by any stretch.

The play of the outside linebackers will be key for the Chargers. Liguet (5.5 sacks) paced the club in sacks in 2013, with fellow end Kendall Reyes finishing second with five sacks. For a club employing a 3-4 base scheme like San Diego, the outside ‘backers must generate some pressure off the edges.

On offense, the play of the Chargers’ line still bears some monitoring, even after the improvements made a season ago.

Changes.

The Chargers’ most important changes could come in the secondary, where Flowers and first-round pick Jason Verrett should bolster the cornerback corps. Those additions came after the club cut ties with corner Derek Cox, who struggled in his lone season in San Diego.

The Chargers have a new offensive coordinator, with Frank Reich replacing Ken Whisenhunt, who became the Titans’ head coach. San Diego has also made a change at backup quarterback, with Kellen Clemens (ex-St. Louis) signing on to replace Charlie Whitehurst, who followed Whisenhunt to Tennessee.

The Chargers’ RB depth chart is a little more crowded with the addition of Donald Brown, who led the Colts in rushing a season ago. He effectively replaces Ronnie Brown as one of the club’s top three backs.

Camp battles.

Several positions bear watching:

—   Right guard: Incumbent Jeromey Clary comes off shoulder and hip surgery; can third-round pick Chris Watt push him for the job?

—   Cornerback: Flowers, Verrett and holdovers Shareece Wright and Richard Marshall are the top four options at the position. Flowers seems likely to garner a major role, but how quickly will Verrett adjust to the NFL game?

—   Running back: How will the reps be split between Mathews, Woodhead and Brown?

—   Nose tackle: Sean Lissemore, Ryan Carrethers and Kwame Geathers are among the options. Cam Thomas, one of the regulars at the position a season ago, signed with Pittsburgh.

—   Outside linebacker: There could be some healthy competition here, with Ingram, Freeney, Larry English, Jarret Johnson, Thomas Keiser and rookie Jeremiah Attaochu all in the mix for work.

Prospects.

The Chargers’ schedule is both inviting and challenging, with the biggest tests right out of the gate and down the stretch.

The Chargers begin with a pair of challenging out-of-conference games at Arizona and vs. Seattle. A 0-2 start is quite possible, given the degree of difficulty of those matchups.

Then comes a five-game run that could ultimately make or break the Chargers’ season. The next five opponents — the Bills (away), Jets (home), Jaguars (home), Raiders (away) and Chiefs (home) — are all conference opponents ranked behind San Diego in PFT’s preseason power rankings. Here’s a chance for the Chargers to stack up some important AFC wins — and they must do so.

Similarly, the Chargers need to make hay in the early part of November. They begin the month at Miami (Nov. 2), then take their bye. Then comes home games vs. Oakland (Nov. 16) and St. Louis (Nov. 23). The Chargers may have to sweep this three-game stretch, considering their next five games — their final of the campaign — are at Baltimore, home vs. New England, home vs. Denver, at San Francisco and at Kansas City.

In all, the schedule seems a perfect test for the Chargers. If their offense remains potent and efficient, and if their defense has improved, the Chargers could get rolling, and they could prove a challenging matchup for anyone, even those strong outfits they face in the final weeks.

The Chargers didn’t blink in tough situations a season ago, which makes them all the more intriguing in 2014. But can they move forward? It probably comes down to whether they can get a few more stops on “D.” They are going to score their share of points.

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Report: Chris Chester signs with Falcons

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Free-agent guard Chris Chester had lined up visits with the Falcons and Eagles. And he won’t be taking those visits.

Via Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com, Chester has signed with the Falcons. It’s a one-year, $2.8 million contract.

Washington released Chester earlier this week. In Atlanta, he’ll be reunited with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

Chester signed with Washington in 2011, after five seasons with the Ravens. He started all 64 regular-season games in four seasons with D.C.

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Harbaugh “wouldn’t want any other quarterback” than “superstar” Flacco

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Is Joe Flacco elite? It’s a question that has become a punchline in some circles. And coach John Harbaugh seems to be ready to punch anyone who would ask that question.

Someone asked that question, with different and more words, during a Friday press conference. And Harbaugh defended Flacco aggressively.

Joe Flacco’s been a great quarterback from the day he got here,” Harbaugh said. “You wanna look back and say this has been the most talented offense in the NFL for the last seven years and they carried Joe Flacco, you can say that if you want, but it’s ridiculous. Joe Flacco is a great player, he’s only gonna get better. I think he’s hitting his stride, hitting the peak of his career. And I wouldn’t want any other quarterback in the National Football League. Period, end of story. So just write than and be done with it, because that’s the last I really want to hear about it.

“This guy is a superstar in the National Football League, and I’m thrilled to have him and I can’t wait to see what he does with all that young talent around him.”

They’ll need more young — and cheap — talent around Flacco in 2016, once his cap number shoots from $14.55 million to $28.55 million. With the head coach speaking of Flacco in such glowing terms, it’s going to be expensive to both knock down that cap number and to extend his stay indefinitely beyond the current season.

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NaVorro Bowman returns to team drills, doesn’t like knee brace

Bowman Getty Images

With multiple inside linebackers surprisingly retired, the 49ers need to get Navorro Bowman back. And they’re moving closer toward doing just that.

Bowman returned to team drills on Friday, joining the 49ers for an OTA practice session more than 16 months after tearing an ACL in the NFC title game at Seattle.

“It’s great having him back out on the field,” coach Jim Tomsula said regarding Bowman on Friday. “Then also the road he’s traveled here in the last year and a half. It’s just awesome to have him out there and I think he’s really enjoying himself.”

Bowman’s not enjoying one thing — wearing a brace on his surgically-repaired knee.

“He is not, they are not friends,” Tomsula said of Bowman and his brace. “But, we really want him to wear it. Just why not, that’s all. And you know what, he’s doing great with it, he is. But, you know Bo. He’s something else, just pushing, pushing, pushing.”

Patrick Willis and Chris Borland called it a career after the 2014 season, making Bowman a key component of a defense that is squarely in transition, especially with defensive lineman Justin Smith retired, too.

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Browns’ offense appears to be moving on from Manziel

Manziel AP

Josh McCown is firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback in Cleveland, to the extent that Johnny Manziel, a first-round pick of the Browns last year, appears to be largely an afterthought at Organized Team Activities.

After reporting on the first week of OTAs, Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland describes Manziel as “a fish out of water” in the offense the Browns are installing. Grossi writes that the Browns don’t seem to be developing Manziel so much as they’re moving on from him.

At the practice the media were allowed to watch, Manziel seemed to eager to run and not confident enough in his passing. And Grossi reports that one source who witnessed another practice says Manziel was actually even worse in a session that the media didn’t see.

The bottom line is that 13 months after he was drafted, Manziel still hasn’t done anything to make the Browns think he’s ever going to be their franchise quarterback. McCown is the starter for now, and someone else will probably need to be found to be the long-term answer in the future.

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Brady appeal hearing set for June 23

Getty Images Getty Images

The deadline for setting Tom Brady’s appeal hearing came and went on Wednesday without a date being set. A date has now been set.

PFT has confirmed that the appeal hearing will commence on June 23, and that it will continue if necessary on June 25. The news was first reported by Adam Schefter of ESPN.

On Thursday, a source with knowledge of the situation told PFT that the NFL and NFL Players Association had agreed to extend the Wednesday deadline, and that the NFL had offered a pair of dates that weren’t ideal for the union. The NFLPA had responded with a pair of weeks that worked, and the NFLPA was waiting for the league to respond.

Brady and the NFLPA wanted the hearing to be conducted in June, in order to ensure that sufficient time will be available to go to court and challenge the outcome of the internal appeal process.

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Browns unveil four-tiered variable pricing

Tickets Getty Images

With the blackout policy suspended for 2015 (i.e., dead as a doorknob . . . or is it doornail? I never know), teams need to find a way to attract customer to pay for tickets to game. The Browns are doing that by utilizing a four-tiered system of variable pricing.

The first tier consists of the Broncos and Titans. Yes, the Titans, because that’s the regular-season home opener.

Tier Two has the Ravens and Steelers. Tier Three consists of the Raiders, Cardinals, 49ers, and Bengals.

Tier Four has the two preseason games, against Washington and Buffalo.

The decision not to put the Ravens and Steelers in the top tier and the decision to put the Bengals in a tier lower than the other division rivals seem odd. But even in a league where coaches look for any ammunition to motivate players, it’s hard to envision Bengals coach Marvin Lewis firing up the troops by pointing out that the Browns saw fit to put the team that has made it to the playoffs four straight years in the third of four pricing tiers, only one click above games that don’t count at all.

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Falcons cut linebacker/alleged dog-killer Prince Shembo

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 21:  Prince Shembo #53 celebrates with Robert McClain #27 of the Atlanta Falcons following an interception against the New Orleans Saints during a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 21, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) Getty Images

That didn’t take long.

Within hours of charges being filed accusing him of kicking and killing his then-girlfriend’s small dog, the Falcons have released linebacker Prince Shembo, according to Zach Klein of WSB. The Falcons have since announced the move themselves.

“We are aware of the charges that have been filed against Prince Shembo,” the team said in a statement. “We are extremely disappointed that one of our players is involved in something like this. Accordingly, we have decided to waive Prince Shembo.”

Shembo was charged with felony aggravated cruelty to animals, for allegedly kicking a Yorkshire terrier named Dior, causing massive internal injuries.

The Falcons were willing to stick up for Shembo after they chose him in the fourth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, despite an incident during his college years at Notre Dame. He was accused of sexually assaulting a female student at nearby St. Mary’s College, who later committed suicide.

No charges were filed in that case, and the Falcons said they were “very comfortable” with him in regards to it.

They’re apparently less comfortable now, and moved quickly to distance themselves.

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Bills claim quarterback Matt Simms off waivers from Jets

Miami Dolphins v New York Jets Getty Images

The Bills decided to freshen up their four-headed quarterback competition, by grabbing a guy from their own division.

According to Howard Balzer of the Sports Xchange, the Bills claimed former Jets quarterback Matt Simms off waivers.

Simms was released yesterday, as the writing was on the wall for him with the Jets when Bryce Petty was drafted. But now he lands with former head coach Rex Ryan and quarterbacks coach David Lee, which can’t hurt his chances.

To make room for Simms on the roster, the Bills got rid of Jeff Tuel, who was rotating among Matt Cassel, EJ Manuel and Tyrod Taylor.

While Simms might not change the bottom line for the Bills, he at least adds more competition at the bottom of the depth chart

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Kiko Alonso surprised by how good his knee feels

kikoalonso AP

Ten months ago, Kiko Alonso suffered a torn ACL that cost him the entire 2014 season with the Bills. In the time since then, Alonso has been traded to the Eagles — and has healed so fully that he surprises himself with how good he feels.

I honestly didn’t think I’d be doing this much,” Alonso told Philly.com at Eagles’ OTAs. “I’ve just been going on how I feel, and it’s feeling really good.”

Part of the reason Alonso feels good is that he’s running without a knee brace.

“I feel comfortable without it,” Alonso said. “I never really liked wearing the brace.”

Alonso played for Eagles coach Chip Kelly at Oregon and knew that Kelly does everything at a fast pace and has a demanding conditioning program. Still, Alsonso didn’t realize just how hard he’d be going this offseason.

“I knew what to expect, but I definitely thought I’d be more in shape, but I was wrong,” Alonso said. “I remember when I was in Buffalo, I was like I can’t imagine going against the Eagles and that pace. Because if you don’t practice like that and you go, it’s brutal.”

That brutal work in May will pay off for Alonso in September, when he finally gets back on the field after his knee injury cost him a season.

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Jason Kelce: Missing the playoffs “almost a good thing” in hindsight

Seattle Seahawks v Philadelphia Eagles Getty Images

The roster turnover of the Eagles (and the opinions about the reasons for it) have been a major topic of the NFL offseason and another member of the team has weighed in with his opinion.

Center Jason Kelce didn’t cite race, egos or anything other than the simple fact that the Eagles weren’t talented enough last year. Kelce said that he thought the team’s locker room was strong last year, but that “we were lacking in talent at a couple positions” and that failing to make the playoffs could almost be spun as a positive because it made the team address those needs.

“This might [tick] off a few people, but when we started off 9-3 … [but] we got lucky quite a few times to win games that we probably shouldn’t have been in,” Kelce said, via the Philadelphia Daily News. “I think that ending the season the way we did — didn’t make the playoffs — in hindsight is almost a good thing because it forced the coaches and the organization to reevaluate what we had. Guys all of the sudden that were on the bubble, [coaches now knew] that we need to make an upgrade there. We need to do this. We need to do that to improve the team as a whole.”

Kelce didn’t specify the areas, but the list of positions that the Eagles addressed this offseason is pretty much the list of positions on their roster as well as Chip Kelly’s move to the top of the personnel hierarchy. For a team that’s won 10 games in each of the last two seasons, it’s a major overhaul and one that’s going to be placed on Kelly’s shoulders however it plays out.

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Falcons linebacker accused of killing very small dog

dead-dog

Falcons linebacker Prince Shembo didn’t just allegedy kick a dog and kill it, he allegedly found one of the smallest dogs possible to kick and kill.

According to Alexis Stevens of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, police documents say Shembo killed his then-girlfriend’s pet Yorkie named Dior.

Yorkshire terriers, which top out around 7 pounds, are no match for 254-pound linebackers, it seems.

The Gwinnett County Police Cpl. Michele Pihera said Shembo was charged with aggravated cruelty to animals, following an April 15 incident.

According to the report, his then-girlfriend Denicia Williams told police she had taken Dior to Shembo’s apartment, and left the dog there. When she returned, the dog was unresponsive, and died a short time later at an animal hospital.

She said the next day, Shembo told her he killed the dog, at which point she broke up with him.

A necropsy was performed at the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter, where the cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma.

According to the report, Dior had “a fractured rib, fractured liver, abdominal hemorrhage, thoracic hemorrhage, extensive bruising and hemorrhage in the muscles in her front leg and shoulders, head trauma, hemorrhage and edema in lungs, hemorrhage between the esophagus and trachea, and hemorrhage in the left eye with internal injuries.”

The Falcons drafted Shembo in the fourth round last year from Notre Dame.

Photo credit: Gwinnett Police.

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Trey Watts suspended four games by NFL

Watts Getty Images

Rams running back Trey Watts, an undrafted free agent who made the team in 2014 and who appeared in 14 games last season, has been suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.

The NFL announced the suspension on Friday.

Watts, the son of former Oklahoma quarterback and Congressman J.C. Watts, played college football at Tulsa. He gained 30 yards on seven carries as a rookie.

Watts is eligible to continue to participate in all offseason activities, training camp, and the preseason. The suspension begins after the fourth preseason game.

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Falcons linebacker Prince Shembo charged with killing dog

FLOWERY BRANCH, GA - MAY 16:  Rookie linebacker Prince Shembo #53 of the Atlanta Falcons runs drills during rookie minicamp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility on May 16, 2014 in Flowery Branch, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

Falcons fans didn’t need this kind of deja vu.

According to Tony Thomas of WSB in Atlanta, Falcons linebacker Prince Shembo has been accused of killing his girlfriend’s dog.

Gwinnett Police have filed animal cruelty charges, alleging that Shembo kicked and killed the animal.

Shembo was last year’s fourth-round pick from Notre Dame, and this isn’t the first time his name has been linked to an unseemly situation.

When he was at Notre Dame, he was accused of sexually assaulting a female student at nearby St. Mary’s College, who committed suicide. No charges were ever filed in the case, and Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said last spring he was “very comfortable” with Shembo after their pre-draft research.

Of course, the Falcons own history with animal abuse dates back to former quarterback Michael Vick, who was imprisoned on felony charges for his role in a dog-fighting ring.

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Brandon Spikes on Belichick: We kissed and made up

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Linebacker Brandon Spikes’s first stint with the Patriots didn’t come to a happy end.

Spikes finished the 2013 season on injured reserve after he missed a practice and Spikes later said that the Patriots filed false injury reports while he was a member of the team. Spikes also referred to his time with the Patriots as “4 years a slave,” which only added to the surprise when Spikes wound up re-signing with the Patriots this month after spending last season with the Bills.

It’s less surprising that Spikes had nothing bad to say about coach Bill Belichick or the Patriots on Friday. Spikes referred to Belichick as a “genius” and described himself as “honestly in awe to be standing here talking” to the media as a member of the Patriots while sticking to the company line that the past will remain in the past.

“I don’t want to talk about that. You can clearly see me and The Hoodie kissed and made up. I’m here, that’s in the past. I’m moving on,” Spikes said, via WEEI.com.

Spikes said his only focus now is on making the team and his chances will be greatly improved if Belichick decides the team needs to shore up their run defense in 2015.

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Belichick doesn’t say much about #DeflateGate

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Patriots coach Bill Belichick met with the media on Friday, an unexpected press conference during an OTA session. And Belichick didn’t have much to say about the #DeflateGate situation. Which isn’t much of a surprise, because he usually doesn’t have much to say about pretty much anything.

Asked whether the football-inflation controversy takes away from the joy of winning the Super Bowl, Belichick said this, via a transcript distributed by the team: “That was a long time ago. We’re on to next year. It’s 2015. You can forget about last year; that was last year.”

But last year spills into this year as it relates to the availability of quarterback Tom Brady to play in the first four games of the season. Asked whether Belichick is preparing Jimmy Garoppolo to be the starter as of Week One, Belichick said, “We’re just going day by day right now. Everybody’s working hard trying to get better. That’s what we’re all doing.”

Asked whether it’s been tough to watch the events of the past few months, Belichick said this: “We’re just working hard every day to come out here and get better. Coaches, players, everybody in the organization, each day we’re trying to make it a little bit better than the day before. That’s where we’re at. That’s what we’re going to keep doing.”

Asked whether he agrees with owner Robert Kraft’s decision to accept the punishment imposed on the team, Belichick said this:  “He made a statement on it last week.”

But Belichick wasn’t only characteristically mum about the #DeflateGate situation. He also didn’t have much to say about the use of a drone to film practice.

Q: “What does that do for you?”

A: “Oh, I don’t know.”

I personally don’t know why Belichick would talk to the media and say nothing. He wasn’t required to speak today. So why even do it?

Maybe the goal was to present Belichick on short notice was to give the local media a chance to grill him about the Ted Wells report and the team’s reaction to it with minimum time to put together the best possible questions.

Or maybe it’s just Belichick being Belichick, and he wouldn’t have said anything of value or interest, no matter what the questions were or how much time the reporters had to formulate them.

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